Last week I was thumbing through People magazine when I came upon an ad. It featured a bikini-clad woman standing at the edge of a pool with her legs spread apart while a guy stared straight up at her crotch and smiled.
Then someone sent me two articles to read that were deeply troubling. One was about sexting and how you don't have to literally send pictures to help your partner be aroused. The other was questioning whether porn might be able to actually help people better understand consent.
At this point you might be questioning where this reading material came from. If I asked you to guess, my gut tells me you probably wouldn't guess the source: Teen Vogue. No, I am not kidding. Both of these articles, "Sexting Doesn't Have To Be So Literal" and "Can Porn Help People Understand Consent?" contain content for mature audiences. These pieces, and others like them, target the curious teens in your life who want to be in the know about today's culture.
Few parents I know get super excited about having ongoing conversations about sexuality. Even fewer look forward to talking with their middle or high school teen about pornography. But if you don't speak into this area of your child's life, the culture will do so in a very big way, and you might find much of the information disconcerting and inaccurate. It's so important that your kids get the information they need from you to have healthy relationships now and in the future. Sadly, our kids believe a great deal of what they read online or in print, and it's so easy to access. They need guidance to understand whether what they are reading is simply entertainment or helpful information that leads them to make healthy choices.
For example, in the sexting opinion piece, Nona Willis Aronowitz describes graphically photographing herself in order to get comfortable with her own body image before she shares pictures with anybody else. She goes on to say that "if you are texting with someone, sending nudes is unbelievably commonplace." Additionally, she quotes sex philosopher Adrienne Maree Brown from her new book, "Pleasure Activism," which does not appear to be written for a teen audience.
Now for the recommendations for sexting: She says it's important to determine that the person who will be receiving the pictures is trustworthy. And "regardless of how serious or intimate y'all are, any worthwhile boo will appreciate the titillation of a beautiful nude, even if they don't get to bring the image home with them." There are plenty of teen girls who believe their "boo" is trustworthy when it comes to not sharing nude pictures of her with his friends, only to find out that wasn't the case.
At the very end of the article, the author discusses the risk involved in sexting, stating that she is sure parents and others have warned that once you send a nude pic you have no control over where it goes, "so the public embarrassment you worry about could become a reality," and if you're under a certain age, sending sexy selfies can count as distributing child pornography. All this comes after a total tutorial on how to take great nudes.
In the second article on porn and consent, the author wonders if explicit verbal consent in more porn could help people understand the concept better. "Imagine this," says the writer. "You're surfing the Internet, looking for some porn to watch (you know why), and after scrolling for what seems like forever, you finally find a video that fits what you're in the mood for. You click play and after watching the prerequisite awkward intro, you hear one person in the film ask another, 'Is it OK if I kiss you?'"
The author says that porn shouldn't be used as sex education, but that young people should be educated on how to consume porn in a healthy way. This is an alarming statement considering the significant amount of research regarding the dangers of porn addiction.
According to Fight the New Drug, a nonreligious and nonlegislative organization that exists to provide individuals the opportunity to make informed decisions regarding pornography by raising awareness on its harmful effects using only science, facts and personal accounts, porn physically changes the brain over time. When one looks at porn, there is a surge of the chemical dopamine that feels really good. Dopamine helps create new brain pathways that essentially lead the user back to the behavior that triggered the chemical release. Porn users can quickly build up a tolerance as their brains adapt to the high levels of dopamine released by viewing porn. Even though porn is still releasing dopamine into the brain, the user can't feel its effects as much.
"It is as though we have devised a form of heroin — usable in the privacy of one's own home and injected directly to the brain through the eyes," says Dr. Jeffrey Satinover of Princeton University, describing porn's effect to a U.S. Senate committee.
Numerous studies indicate that porn is a very significant problem in the U.S. In fact, the Justice Department estimates that 9 out of 10 children between 8 and 16 have seen online porn. Once you have seen porn, the image remains in your brain.
The author of the Teen Vogue article cites research from the UK that 60 percent of students in the survey had turned to porn to learn more about sex, and 40 percent of them said porn colored their understanding of what sex is. Young people in the U.S. also report turning to porn when their school sex ed classes don't equip them for the realities of sex.
So if you think your daughters are purchasing or looking at Teen Vogue online for the fashion, think again. Their website says, "Teen Vogue: Fashion, Beauty, Entertainment News for Teens," and it lists the topics of style, politics, culture and identity. I would strongly encourage you to visit the site and read through the content for yourself.
The middle and high school years are complicated enough for so many reasons, but these articles in Teen Vogue and other publications are troubling for those of us who have been fighting against the sexualization of women. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of advertisements, media and music that send hypocritical messages about what is acceptable and what is not. What our kids consume shapes the trajectory of their lives. The impact of sexting and looking at porn in their teen years will follow them into adulthood.
Women who don't want themselves or others to be seen as objects or commodities have a responsibility to call out these overtly sexual messages that undermine the change that's been advocated for. We have made a great deal of progress in the age of #MeToo, but we still have a long way to go.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.